Saul Williams is a wizard. He is one of the few rare voices that dares to be bold and attempts to reveal the layers of truth beneath a well oiled functioning society that feeds off of popular culture and, at times, even the lowest common denominator. An accomplished poet, actor (you might have seen him in SLAM!), and musician (he’s made 6 albums with the likes of Rick Rubin and Trent Reznor), Williams is the kind of artist who embodies an energy that transcends any one medium. Think Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Chuck D, Sidney Poitier, Tupac, James Baldwin. Saul even recently starred in the Tupac inspired broadway show “Holla if you hear me.”
As a friend, and collaborator, I spent the day with the rogue at his podcast for his new graphic novel/album titled Martyr Loser King coming out on the Fader label. Having just returned to New York after four years in Paris, we sat down to listen to his new music and discuss his perspective on today’s societal/cultural state.
Aku Orraca-Tetteh: So we connected around the Niggy Tardust and my band, Dragons of Zynth tour.
Saul Williams: Yep, you and I first connected and toured the U.S. in 2008.
And then you went to Paris? What were you doing out there?
I started working on Volcanic Sunlight. The whole thing was about trying to do something different musically. Trying to let the music speak more than the words per say. It was more about sounds I felt like hearing, and I found this really dope producer Renaud Létang. I met my wife (actress and director, Anisia Uzeyman). We all met in an amazing way.
For me Paris came at a perfect time in my life. It was through the connections I made in Paris that I came to work on the film Today with Alain Gomis. The film got me out of Paris and into Senegal and back into that “Paris” feeling. I was running from museum to runway, discovering who’s who Paris, to the barbesse Cameroonian dive, African Paris which is old, almost like Harlem.
Is that where you met Alain Gomis?
I met him over the phone. I met a friend of his who told me that he had written the film for me, and was looking for me but he was in Senegal at the time doing pre-production. He gave him my information, I spoke to him that afternoon, and the next day the producers showed up at my house with a script.
So did you have to learn different languages?
The experience was kind of a dream come true in a way. The script gave me a finite way of learning the language. It wasn’t only in French, but Wolof & Mandjak, two Senegalese dialects. I had a good base to start my French and would have to practice by going to the bank, talking at parent-teacher conferences, and dealing with the label and producers. I eventually entered a world where people would stop changing the conversation into English because I was in the room.
Did you find the city to be at all like James Baldwin’s Paris? Baldwin among many other African-American artists have often described Paris as an artists haven away from America.
I’m sure in many ways it is like that, and in many ways it could never be like that because of the times we’re living in. I was in Paris during the Occupy movement, Sandy, the Tsunami. It’s crazy when things happen in the place you understand as home. Your proximity to those types of events forces you to asses them in an interesting way. In that way, I felt something similar to the American artists who often travel. I was getting all of my American friends to stop through in Paris during this time, in way that doesn’t really happen in New York or L.A. Everyone called me when they stopped through Paris. I had kind of a salon.
Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of Saul in Paris stories. What made you decide to come back?
I always wanted to come back to New York. I always felt like there was unfinished business here. I was never comfortable with what took over in mainstream hip-hop. By the end of it I was thinking, “We can’t let these muthafuckers win.” Cats like Jay-Z and 50 cent were winning at the same time that Bloomberg and Bush were winning. All of that shit was a parallel universe for me. I was like “FUCK THAT!” You gotta know that I am a New York hip-hop head, but I am presented as a poet. I saw the “money over bitches, money over everything” mentality in the bureaucracy AND in the music. Why would I wanna listen to Wall St. ni**as rap? At the time I was thinking, “Y’all trying to rap like you’re the one percent?
Yeah man, I was just walking down the street today and it just dawned on me that Roc-A-Fella records is probably an homage to the Rockefeller Dynasty!
Yeah, read what Che Guevara had to say about Rockefeller. Who are your heroes, you know?
Well, who are yours?
That’s the thing, it’s about your references and what you deem as beautiful and important and beyond your own self serving purposes. Self serving purposes often being, “At any cost I’m gonna get rich, I don’t care who I’m gonna exploit.”
I think about people like Baldwin or Belafonte as my heroes. And then there people that I’ve only recently learned of. The first time I ever read any Walter Benjamin was recently, in Paris. There’s a ton of people that I have heard of but haven’t taken the time to read. It’s always like that. I started watching Cassavetes films in Paris. I hadn’t taken the time before. I got a projector and started projecting movies and live performances like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Coltrane, and these old movies with Marlene Dietrich. I started watching Russian filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Swedish filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman. Ya know at my daughter’s school, the teachers used to get the kids to sing a Nina Simone song “Ne me quitte pas” to learn French. That is a song originally written by Jacques Brel, so I started getting into him.
We talk about Monsanto here, but in some places they live it. There are bigger principles to me than “good business.” The guys that were good in business were probably even better at exploitation, so they aren’t necessarily my heroes. I’ve always been attracted to the people who have been heavily exploited. Exploitation is not something I’ve sought out, but I feel a connection with those groups of people. I walk through life like that. “We wear the mask.”
Is Paris where you got the idea for Martyr Loser King?
Yea, Paris is where I started conceptualizing. I was there for four years. The first two were Volcanic Sunlight, and the last two were Martyr Loser King.
How did you come to this idea. Its great!
Simple. Being a foreigner in Paris, I felt privileged to have an overview. I took it as an opportunity to learn more about gender and identity in America, rape crimes in India, problems of National security everywhere. Being away from home, I really felt the events that were happening at home in a different way. I was on tour when Trayvon happened. I felt like a weatherman being able to see where the traffic is going. When you’re outside of the country, you look at what’s happening in America. Its like processing data. You can notice trends like Justin Beiber without being consumed by them. People outside of the United States don’t give a shit about what consumes Americans everyday. There’s tons of shit that we go on and on about that really is just in America. When you are out of the country, you can have an international kind of perspective. I wanted to think about the relationship I had as a foreigner to Paris in a creative way. “Martyr Loser King” is how someone would pronounce Martin Luther King with a French accent.
Amazing, its true. Sounds just like it. You wanna expand on the idea of Martyr Loser King?
I feel like I’ve said so much building up to it…
Yeah, I feel like this story is really kind of the state we are in now. Your understanding of our current condition is perhaps explanation enough.
In American terms, Martyr Loser King is a brand. Its a lifestyle brand, you know what I’m saying? It’s a lifestyle brand that is essentially the mark of the rebel.
As I sat with Saul listening to songs from his upcoming album/graphic novel, I was taken to an astral plane. I started having visions of this wizard taking us all on a journey back to when artists really worked to cause a ripple in our status quo. I also was transported to the future and had visions of Saul taking us to the next intergalactic frontier. This album is fire and potent. I can only hope that in the day and age of color coated candied hip-pop, the art and message can get to us in time to inspire the spark of change. I know that it has in me. I’m ready; I hope you are too.